A lot of sports fans grow up with childhood dreams of someday playing for their hometown teams.
Mason City’s Nik Howell might just get to do it.
This past weekend, Howell played as a member of the North Iowa Bulls Red team during the organization’s preseason tryouts, and made it through the first round of cuts as it works to set its roster for the upcoming season.
Howell, a senior at Mason City High School, has had a longtime relationship with the Bulls franchise. The team has been able to keep a close watch over the Mason City native in his time playing for the Mohawks’ hockey team, and Howell has spent time practicing with the Bulls when his school schedule allows for the past several years.
“I’ve been here for 10 years and Nik has grown up in the Mohawk program,” Bulls head coach Todd Sanden said. “We saw him at the rink when he was a little tiny guy. We’ve known Nik for a long time and he is not a surprise to us.”
Howell has been playing hockey since he was around 4 or 5 years old. He began to play in Mason City with the Mohawks’ youth program, and also played on a youth team called the Iowa Storm.
Around the age of 11, Howell started attending North Iowa games at the Bulls’ old home at North Iowa Ice Arena, affectionately dubbed “The Barn” by area hockey fans.
“It was a little bit later when I was growing up I started going to Bulls games, because I couldn’t really comprehend much when I was a little bit younger,” Howell said. “Now I can watch my position and study the game, what’s going on, and how to play.”
Over the past several years, Howell has proven to be a valuable piece on the ice for the Mohawks. In his time as a varsity player, Howell has scored 43 total goals and contributed 26 assists. Last season, Howell scored 28 goals in 31 games played.
“He’s a big, strong, and young hockey player who plays the game with speed,” Sanden said. “He is a strong kid, so he has the aspect of being able to be physical as well.
"He understands our expectations. He lives in town, and he’s on the ice with us regularly, so there is probably less grooming that we have to do with a player like Nik than a fresh incoming player.”
On Friday, Howell and his teammates on the Red Team took the ice against Bowman Hockey. On Saturday, the squad played two games, the first at noon against the Kenai River Brown Bears, and again at 8:45 p.m. against the Sheridan Hawks.
The weekend finished up with a game between the Bulls’ Red and Green teams on Sunday afternoon.
The weekend was full of chippy play on the ice with lots of pushing and shoving, and nearly every player got checked into the boards at some point in the day. While there was plenty of rough play, fights are kept to a minimum during the tryout season. Nobody wants to get a bad reputation, even if fighting is one of the players’ favorite parts of the game.
“I think it's an unwritten rule that you don’t fight, because you are just there to get looked at,” Howell said. “If you fight, they think maybe this kid is just a goon. But some teams want that goon on the second line that can beat some other people up if they touch their skill players. I have a cage (helmet) on, and I’ll still have a cage on this year, so I won’t be able to fight at all. It’s kind of a bummer.”
The biggest bummer of the year for the Bulls came back on March 13. The team finished the 2019-2020 regular season with a 38-7-2 record, won the NA3HL West title for the seventh time in its nine year existence, and was all set to play Alexandria in the Fraser Cup playoffs when the league canceled the remainder of the postseason due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
After a several month layoff, Sanden and his coaching staff have finally been able to get back to recruiting and getting things ready for a new season. The league has not yet announced this year’s schedule, but it is tentatively scheduled to begin sometime in early October.
“It’s probably been a six to eight week stretch that we have been able to go move about and scout and recruit kids,” Sanden said. “Having it down there at the Mason City multipurpose arena, and having fans be able to come in, and have a bunch of hockey players coming in and playing the game they love, it was a lot of fun this weekend.”
With the first round of tryouts done, Sanden said that 36 prospects – including Howell – have been invited to return. The roster will need to be trimmed even further before the season starts, and will remain fluid until teams finalize their playoff rosters on Feb. 10.
For Howell, there is still plenty more work to do. Even for a local kid who has a good relationship with the coaching staff, a spot is not guaranteed. That said, Sanden admits that the team would love to see Howell suit up in a North Iowa Bulls uniform if he proves deserving of a roster spot.
“If he is able to do that, certainly,” Sanden said. “It’s always a competitive environment. We’re not just going to put a guy in a jersey. They have to be able to contribute. With us extending practice time to him the last few years, he is a guy we are interested in trying to get in that jersey.”
Shane Lantz covers sports for the Globe Gazette. You can reach him at Shane.Lantz@GlobeGazette.com, or by phone at 641-421-0526. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneMLantz.
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